Die Electric Car, Die!

By Bill Moore

Posted: 20 Nov 2010

Let's set the record straight here. Yes, electric cars can shift pollution from the vehicle's tailpipe to some power plant smokestack somewhere else. That's the argument that David Grainger makes in Electric cars move problem elsewhere. Grainger makes no bones about the fact that he detests the notion of electric cars, writing, "I really wish the electric car would die once more." What he sees as the solution we'll touch on in a moment, but for now he sees them doing...

"...more harm than good and is not a solution to any environmental problems. For a start, the energy that propels electric cars down the road has to come from somewhere. While their owners are blissfully sleeping, content in the knowledge that their contribution to a healthy environment is in the garage charging overnight, the coal- and gas-fired electrical generation plants are working overtime burning petrochemicals to transform into electricity."
I am not sure where David gets his information about how coal and gas-fired power plants work, but he clearly isn't up to speed on this topic. To begin with, coal-fired power plants are not "working overtime" at night. In fact, they are loafing along at less than peak capacity for good reason: no body's awake to use their power. However, unlike the lights in your house, utilities like Ontario Power, who produces Grainger's power -- he writes for the National Post in Toronto -- can't simply turn their plants off at night. At most, I am told, they can reduce their output by maybe one-third. That's why they are called base-load plants. Whether anyone needs their power or not, they have to keep the boilers boiling and the generators spinning. In effect, a lot of that coal is simply wasted and the electricity sent to ground at night.

Gas-fired power plants are a bit of a different animal. They can be thermoelectric, using natural gas (methane) to heat steam similar to a coal-fired plant, or they can be gas-turbine plants that operate somewhat like gigantic jet engines, burning the gas directly, and for more efficiently, I might add. The former are base-load, the latter typically produces power during peak demand periods, usually around 2-7 PM in the afternoon and early evening. These can be more readily cycled up and down over a shorter time period. Of course, what Mr. Grainger is concerned about is "overnight" power production, presumably in his home province of Ontario.

Okay, I did a little Googling on Ontario power; here's what their average generation mix looks like:

Now if Mr. Grainger had simply talked to Ontario Power, I am sure they would have gladly informed him that of all the base-load power it relies on, the one energy source with the least amount of generation flexibility is nuclear power. It takes a long time to bring one on line and just as long to take if off line. Once you've got it running, you just let those neutrons do their thing. You don't cycle it up and down like a combined cycle gas turbine, much less a coal-fired plant. The significance here is two-fold. First of all, the average mix of Ontario's electric power is relatively clean, as these things go, with the largest fraction coming from nuclear power. Secondly, since you don't as normal practice cycle N-plants up and down overnight, an even larger's share of electricity being feed into the grid and conceivably recharging all those nasty electric cars will come from nuclear power, which while it has its own set of environmental issues, can't be considered in the same league as coal in terms of its CO2 emissions.

But that being said, in a curiously counter-intuitive way, coal might be considered one of the good guys here. Okay, the stuff is dirty and burning it to make electricity is horribly inefficient, any way you look at it. The only reason we use the stuff is because its relatively cheap compared to all the other alternatives, though that's a situation that is likely to change in the next couple decades. But for the moment, let's assume Grainger's worst fears and ALL of that power does, in fact, come from coal. Here's the kicker, since we're already throwing away huge amounts of the electricity those base-load plants produce at night just so they can be ready to go at 7 AM when lights start turning on and coffee makers begin perking away, wouldn't it make sense to use that wasted energy to recharge electric cars; and by doing so, they don't burn gasoline, which comes from equally messy refineries and oil fields out in Calgary, oh, and by the way, pollutes Toronto's air? This seems pretty simple to me: use energy you're now throwing away to displace as nearly a dirty source.

Now David Grainger isn't entirely opposed to electric cars; he just is a bit confused as to what exactly is an "electric car." Later in his OpEd he writes, "The most environmentally friendly cars and those we should all be demanding would be powered by hydrogen."

Now I think he's referring to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and not engines tweaked to burn hydrogen gas, which they can as Ford and BMW demonstrated a decade ago. Assuming he's talking about fuel cell cars, I have news for him: they are electric cars. Instead of an electrochemical battery, they use the current created during the process of recombining hydrogen with oxygen -- which was first identified in the 1840s -- to power the car's electric motor. It's neat technology, for sure.

There's just one big problem -- actually there are several, but we'll ignore those for now -- hydrogen does not exist alone in nature. It loves to combine with other atoms to make things like water and hydrocarbons. To get the fuel to powered Mr. Grainger's hydrogen car, you need to expend energy. The cheapest way is to steam reform natural gas; but, of course, you have to use energy to make the steam. Or you can crack it by electrolyzing water. Again it takes energy. In fact, it takes so much energy given current technology, that you'd be better off using that energy directly to power your electric car. Alec Brooks calculated a decade ago that for the same amount of energy you could propel an electric car (the battery kind) four times the distance as a fuel cell car. Or put another way, to create all that hydrogen that Mr. Grainger wants us to use instead of electricity, you would have to have all those "coal- and gas-fired electrical generation plants [are] working overtime burning petrochemicals to transform into electricity"... or making steam for the reformation process.

Now granted, the process to make hydrogen has probably improved some since Dr. Brooks wrote his paper, but I am guessing probably not that much. Look, making electricity is a complicated process that involves some level of pollution along the product stream be it at the coal mine or the plant in which silicon ingots are formed for solar panels. The challenge for us and future generations is to find ways to do it with the least amount of overall emissions. There is plenty for us to do to clean up our act, especially in how we produce electric power. However, it doesn't help when pundits like Mr. Grainger go off half-cocked with comments like these...

Electric cars are dangerous because, like alcohol-based fuels, the man behind the curtain is making make us feel like his magic is real when in fact it is all just an illusion. The choking fumes are relentless; we are just moving them down the road.

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